Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why Scientists like Artists

It is often said that Nashvillians possess two lives. One is spent on a day job to make a living. The other unfolds during the off hours, when we pursue our musical aspirations. If the music works out, we will quit our day job. I was once privileged to meet someone who was about to make this lucky transition. She was recording her first CD. Because I had never witnessed a recording session, I asked her whether I could not tag along to experience what it was like. She graciously agreed, and I ended up visiting a recording studio.

It was different from what I had expected. The location was somewhere in the countryside a forty-minute drive from Nashville. The producer worked out of his basement. Below the keyboards and mixers, I saw plenty computer equipment. The music could be heavily computer-generated. Essentially, this man was able to produce the sounds of all instruments in a band by himself, except the steel guitar. I was told that this was one rare instrument whose sound could not be synthesized to satisfaction yet. On my day, the soundtrack for the steel guitar was recorded. After that my friend sang. She was cooped up in a sound-insulated booth that doubled as the closet for the washer and the drier on other days. All afternoon, my friend repeated the same line until her voice almost broke and she needed a lolly pop to continue singing.

The producer was working with a man who possessed the golden finger that came down on a button exactly at the point in time when the line had to be spliced into the song. My friend had to sing the line precisely the way the man with the golden finger demanded. What he asked for was so nuanced, I could hardly hear the difference. He was profoundly insistent and perfectionist about the process. My friend gave her best to deliver. After three hours, I myself imagined hearing what the man with the golden finger was aiming at. The day went by like a breeze. My friend told me afterwards that she had spent many weeks like this and was not quite finished yet. Her hard work eventually paid off with a collection of beautiful songs, opening the way into the Bluebird Cafe. In Nashville, music means business!

I am not musically versed in any respect. I am a research scientist. What struck me most about the production process was its similarity to the work I know. The beginning of any research study is an idea, that is the hypothesis. The scientist shapes the hypothesis and designs the experiments to prove or disprove it. The results provide new insights. Things may turn out different from expectation. The hypothesis will change and experimentation proceeds until a break-through is achieved.

Watching my friend at work that day, I learned that making a song adheres to the same procedure. The singer/songwriters and producers shape the tune and the lyrics of the song until they fit perfectly together and all aspects fall in place. Eventually a new song is born. In this process as much as in scientific research, experience is essential for the design of a flawless product, pure and free of contradiction. As many scientists teach, my friend became a councilor. She published a collection of interviews with successful singer/songwriters, giving advice to those who wish to pursue this career. Today, she coaches young talent to get started. You may visit her here.

  • When we listen to Bob Boilen's segment on NPR's All Things Considered entitled "Moby: One Song, Two Days, Three Versions" broadcast today, we grasp immediately that artists and scientists are striving in the same fashion to perfect a product shaped countless times in their imagination. In that sense humans seem unique. No other creature we know is able to accomplish such act of creation (05/04/10).
  • It is fascinating how similar the creative process in the arts and the sciences can be. The eminent pharmacologist Otto Loewi had the idea for the experiment that would prove the existence of neurotransmitters and win him the Nobel Prize in his dreams. Keith Richards had the fundamental idea for "I can't get no satisfaction", one of The Rolling Stones' signature songs, in his dreams as well. Loewy needed to scribble notes down on a pad that he had placed on his bed stand. He had had the dream of the experiment on a prior night, but had nothing to write it down with at that time, and forgotten the details when he awoke. When the dream re-occurred, he was prepared with pad and pencil, finding his notes next morning. Richards habitually took his guitar hooked up to a tape recorder to bed and woke up one morning, finding the basic tune for the fabled Stones song recorded on the tape. Listen to this, at times mildly strained, interview with Terry Gross broadcast on National Public Radio's Fresh Air under the title "The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards Looks Back At 'Life'" today in context with Richard's just-published memoir entitled "Life" (10/25/10).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

About the Value of Exercise after Brain Injury

Brain injury is a life changing event. Your health care provider may help you with a stay in a rehabilitation clinic for a number of weeks, where you learn how to deal with your new life. Then, you are on your own.

Christopher Reeve taught us that it is important to remain upbeat and exercise. Occupational therapy is essential. Nerve cells need stimulation for recovery and repair. Reorganization may occur. Synapses, that is the contacts between the nerve cells, may strengthen with stimulation and use. To advance recovery from hemiparesis after stroke, one novel treatment, Constraint-Induced Movement therapy, entails the temporary restraint of the functional limb while the patient is encouraged to carry out tasks with the paralyzed limb.

We understand little about the repair of broken connections between nerve cells, when, for instance, a sudden snap of the head pushes the brain so forcefully inside the skull that the long processes of the nerve cells are severed. This effect is known as axonal shear. By contrast, extensive knowledge has been gathered on the effects of ischemia, that is when the blood supply to the brain tissue is disrupted, and strategies are being developed to rescue nerve cells under this condition.

We have learned that functional recovery depends on low concentrations of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate in the extracellular fluid. Glutamate in high concentrations may cause nerve cells to fire electrical impulses at high rate in intense oscillations causing convulsive seizures. Moreover, too much glutamate may trigger programmed cell death.

Furthermore, free radicals need to be eliminated. Free radicals are highly reactive chemicals that can modify the molecular machinery of the cell to such extent that vital functions cease. They accumulate in high concentrations when the blood-brain barrier is breached, the brain tissue is flooded with fluid, and blood perfusion is disrupted.

Neuroprotective agents are currently tested that may help to minimize the adverse effects of glutamate and the exposure to free radicals.

In addition to medication, however, the right amount of exercise seems instrumental. Remaining passive does not help recovery. On the other hand, one should not overdo it. Too much stimulation may harm already stressed nerve cells. The keys to success are regimen and persistence. One needs to continue exercising at a steady pace, though progress seems elusive.

The tasks to be carried out appear nonsensical at first, because the goals are unattainable. Try anyways. For example, the challenge may consist of playing Tetris, although the clusters of squares disappear from view in the part of the visual field blinded by a cortical stroke cortical blindness). Frustratingly, you may not be able to track the squares, when it counts most. Keep at it! You will do better than you believe. Chances are that you will improve as the days go by, recovering visual function over time.

This is the advice I should have given a former colleague who called me one day out of the blue and asked me what could be done in such a case. Taken by surprise, I could not come up with the idea until after we had hung up. Sadly, she did not leave her number.

You may give it a try here:

  • Maggie Fox posted a report with the title "Computer exercise helps stroke victims "see" again" on Reuters today, describing a research study that demonstrates that this idea works (04/01/09).
  • Yesterday, Roni Caryn Rabin posted a report with the title "Study Raises Estimate of Paralyzed Americans" in The New York Times that according to a recent survey commissioned by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation 5.6 million Americans suffer from paralysis. In roughly 1.3 million people the cause is spinal cord injury. Stroke constitutes the most prevalent cause with 1.6 million cases (04/21/09).
  • Listen to this informative interview with Dr. Olajide Williams by Rebecca Roberts entitled "'Stroke Diaries' Provide Insight For Survivors" on NPR's Talk to the Nation today about recovery from stroke. We can still progress in recovery a very long time after the event (05/06/10).
  • This Wall Street Journal video sums up concisely the progress of research in the recovery of function after brain and spinal cord injury (10/26/10):
  • In the video below with the title "Robot legs help stroke survivor to walk again" Reuters' Stuart McDill reported yesterday on a promising application of a computer-assisted exoskeleton that may help people recover walking after a stroke (11/29/2011):
  • In their article published online by Science magazine last week, Van den Brand and others (2012) provided an appealing proof of a new concept facilitating the rapid recovery of function after spinal cord injury in paraplegic rats. The procedure entails infusion of neurotrophic substances into the cerebral motor cortex and precisely-timed electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, stimulating growth of new nerve cell connections, as well as robotics-supported physical exercise. Watch the demonstration in the video below narrated by Reuters' Jim Drury two days ago (06/02/2012):
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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fahrenheit -459.67

Molecules need to be on the move to react with each other. Inspired by his observations on the thermodynamics of gas molecules, the Irish scientist Lord Kelvin conceived it useful to set to zero the temperature, at which molecular motion must come to a standstill. Today, his idea is recognized in the international system for measures, and units of temperature have been named in his honor. Extrapolation from experimental observation has pegged -459.67° Fahrenheit to zero degrees Kelvin. At this temperature, the molecules reach the state of lowest kinetic energy and greatest stability.

However, at higher temperature, molecules are in motion and chemical reactions occur. As a result, energy may be set free. Although this energy can be used to fuel other chemical reactions, some will dissipate unused. The loss is called entropy. Entropy commonly increases with the multitude and the complexity of the reactions, summarily advancing our universe toward Lord Kelvin's endpoint.

Life is an effort to stem this progress. In order to survive, living things need to preserve energy like surfers tirelessly weaving up and down the face of a wave. Every descend fuels the next ascend. Organisms as a whole as much as the cells they are built from have to meet this challenge. This is our lot in life.

In the battle against entropy, nothing lasts forever. The building blocks of living cells are subjected to wear and tear. They need to be continuously repaired or replaced. Even constant upkeep may not suffice. Most cells possess a limited lifespan. Primordial cells must continue proliferation to make up for the losses.

To satisfy these needs, cells rely on two essential tools. One tool is a repository of construction plans for the cellular components. The DNA in the cellular nucleus encodes these plans. The other tool is the machinery that reads the plans, can duplicate them and use the instructions to synthesize the proteins needed to build the cells' components and even entirely new cells. It is existential to protect the plans and keep the machinery functional in order to prevent the manufacture of faulty, useless, and even harmful products.

Free radicals, e.g. highly reactive forms of oxygen, constitute a major group of agents that may modify the construction plans and interfere with proper protein synthesis. Aromatic products of the incomplete combustion contained in barbecue and cigarette smoke, e.g. benzo[a]pyrene, are another group.

Cells possess quality control and repair mechanisms to contain the damage such agents cause, entering into a ceaseless contest between destruction and restoration. If vital functions cannot be repaired, either because of the magnitude of the damage or because the repair comes to a halt, the cells die.

In addition, cells may contain programs that are specifically in place to enact their death (apoptosis) and are used in regular development. For example, skin fuses our fingers together early in embryonic development. Eventually, programmed cell death separates the digits. When the programs for cell death are disabled and programs for cell proliferation are falsely engaged, the tissue may grow out of control, a condition known as cancer.

In the battle for renewal, the brain holds a special place among our organs. Nerve cells proliferate only in a few places in the mature brain, e.g. the olfactory bulbs and the hippocampus. Replacement is a scarce option. Much of the maintenance and repair is left to different cells called glia. The picture shows an early rendering of these cells in the work of Auguste Forel. He called them spider cells.

To date, the precise role of glia remains little understood. Early scientists believed that they constitute the glue that holds the brain together. We know now that one major type, astrocytes, plays an important role in keeping the environment viable for the nerve cells. They remove salts and molecules from the fluid in the extracellular space, preventing levels that would trigger cell death. In contrast to nerve cells, astrocytes multiply after brain injury inflicted by stroke and trauma, producing a gliosis. Astrocytes are also known to enter proliferation erronously. The most deleterious brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, is of astrocytic origin.

Microglia are the other major type of glia in the brain.  Their role is more mysterious than that of astrocytes. The difficulty mainly arises from the fact that these cells change considerably in appearance as part of their reaction to brain injury. In the absence of direct observation, it is hard to ascertain whether and how the various cell forms are related that scientists identify as microglia. Hence, it remains difficult to pinpoint their origin. A scientist I worked with had evidence to believe that the microglia accumulating at the site of injury are derived from cell populations resident in the brain. Others believe that they consist mainly of bone marrow-derived white blood cells that infiltrate the brain from the blood stream through a blood-brain-barrier rendered leaky by the injury. Recent findings support both contentions.

Irrespective of their provenance, microglia are supposed to provide the immune response of the brain. They are known to incorporate the debris left behind by dying nerve cells. They attain a plum shape in the process and some remain unchanged on location for many years, even decades, after the insult. We do not yet understand, why they reside there and what purpose they still serve. Regardless, I take it that they are good soldiers in our cosmic fight against entropy and see to it that we do not reach Fahrenheit -459.67 too quickly.

I omitted to mention a formidable tool of living cells to stem entropy: enzymes. Enzymes are catalyzing proteins. That is, they facilitate chemical reactions that may happen only at random otherwise by bringing the components of the reaction together, accelerating the biochemical processes important to vital functions of living cells. Compartmentalization of enzymes, that is confining enzymes in distinct parts of the cell, helps organize the reactions into orderly sequences of separate processes, enabling meaningful signal transduction and the regulation of enzymic activity involved in cell anabolism and catabolism as well as in protein synthesis, replication and proliferation. The eminent biochemist Jaques Monod argued in his famed book "Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology" that the first biochemical process of life in its simplest form might have been an enzyme synthesizing nucleic acids containing the information needed to synthesize this enzyme, hence empowering the protein to replicate itself. Alas, enzymic reactions are profoundly temperature dependent and come to a halt far above zero degrees Kelvin.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

About Leadership

Miyamoto Musashi: His Life & Writings
I have been working in life science research in industry, government and academe in three countries for about 30 years. One impression is ominous. Good leadership is precious and rare. The Japanese General Shinmen Musashi remarked in his Book of Five Rings on the importance of skill and practice: “If you can beat ten enemy, you can fend off an army of 10,000 with 1,000 of your kind.”

Too true, General! Skillful training and practice are important building blocks of a competent fighting force. The General's most fabled expertise covers these issues most meticulously. Similarly, in academe a lot of thought is spent on how to groom young talent. The Max Planck Society holds regular meetings on the subject at a beautiful place in the Bavarian Forests called Schloss Ringberg, and avenues appear carefully chosen to lead the young successfully toward these goals.

However, according to the great Musashi a third condition must be met to succeed on the battle field. That is, you need generals who care to understand their soldiers well enough to deploy them to their fullest effectiveness. This is the art of good leadership.

I met two styles of leadership in academe. Both are endowed and not willfully chosen. One is the micro-manager. This person essentially recruits help to implement her/his ideas. Since scientific exploration is often a self-centered enterprise, this style of leadership comes naturally to institutions of higher education and may lead to outstanding recognition. The Harnack-principle of the Max-Planck-Society is one institutionalized example of the approach. That is, the Society used to build research institutes around promising talent of choice who directed the future of the institutes.

The drawback of this strategy reveals itself when the great leader steps down. The social implications pose tantamount problems. The director may have surrounded him/herself with loyal, long-standing deputies. None of them could groom their career to the level of recognition necessary to be able to stand in for the old leader. Eventually, the Society is confronted with what to do about the “rump” after the “head” is off. Moreover, the question of continuity is unresolved. The great talent's research path may end forever. In science, continuity of knowledge is essential. It is always possible that someone somewhere else picks up the lose ends. However, dislocated transitions are rough. Valuable experience may be lost forever.

The other style of leadership is the delegator. The delegator is a person who picks people who fit the plans in general terms, encourages them to pursue their ideas with as little interference as possible and allows them to develop their careers to their fullest abilities. If they succeed, a research enterprise may be born that outlasts any individual. Examples for this style of leadership are rarer. I had the privilege to meet a few. One succeeded in elevating an academic department from oblivion in research to world-renown with one Chair and two Associate positions in less than 10 years. Another managed to set in motion a gigantic scientific endeavor that spawned a series of Nobel laureates. Its main theme of research attracts millions of dollars of support today and sustains thousands of researchers.

Make your decisions wisely. Power is elusive. The only instance you wield it may be when you hire somebody.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

About Superior Intelligence

Are creatures from Space visiting us? This a pertinent question warming presidential candidate debates. My father believed so. He was convinced that they were way smarter than us and too wise to reveal themselves. He also believed that they must have a good time watching us making stupid decisions. Ever since he shared his hypothesis with me, I have been pondering the idea of what it would take to be decisively smarter than humans?

All processes in the universe seem sequential, unfolding with the flow of time. The timing of events decides cause and effect. If we cannot peg the time, analysis and reason fail. Therefore, our ability to resolve the timing of events is of existential importance for our perception of the world. The nerve cells in the brain and the connections they form with each other determine the limits of this ability. The nerve cells in the cerebral cortex may be able to distinguish between subsequent events only, if they occur more than about 5 milliseconds apart.

Technology had to be invented to permit us to understand happenings in shorter time. We had to invent clocks with highly precise movements for this purpose. We had to discover optical atomic clocks to be able to reach for the timing of light. Although these technologies help us to better understand cause and effect in the universe, our mind remains bound by the condition of our nervous system, limiting our responsiveness.

Therefore, a nervous system with a greater temporal resolution seems a prerequisite for superior intelligence. If extraterrestrials were to resolve time better than we do, they would be able to distinguish between causes and effects where we perceived only coincidence and thus could address a situation more appropriately. Such minds could distinguish better between causality and complementarity.

Of course, greater temporal resolution is not the only requirement. Nerve cells in the brains of echolocating bats resolve binaural differences in the timing of tone pips smaller than a millisecond (Harnischfeger and others, 1985). Though atomic clocks may provide fascinating remedies for our mental shortcomings in this respect, I do prefer the exquisitely-crafted, fine time pieces by Raymond Weil,but settled for a Festina.

  • On Mar. 20, 2009, National Public Radio's All Things Considered broadcast a segment entitled "Smart People Really Do Think Faster" by Jon Hamilton on recent research findings providing evidence that higher intelligence can indeed be associated with greater nervous processing speed (03/25/09).
  • They may exist after all. Read here. Watch this (04/22/09):
  • According to Kate Kelland's post entitled "Scientists say "super-Earth" has rocky surface" on Reuters today, astronomers have discovered 330 exoplanets so far. Exoplanets revolve around suns different from our own. Most are very large gas giants. But recent studies indicate that a smaller one is rocky like Earth. The universe seems filled with plenty opportunity (09/16/09)!
  • According to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the number of exoplanets stands at 452 today. Paul Davies who heads the BEYOND center for fundamental concepts in science at Arizona State University published an insightful essay entitled "Is Anybody Out There?"  on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in The Wall Street Journal on Apr. 10 (10/22/10).
  • A NASA spokesman provides some insights where the agency is looking for extraterrestrial life in an interview with CNN's John Roberts (04/29/10):
  • The eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote an insightful essay entitled "How to build a time machine" published online in the Daily Mail yesterday, explaining why causality is a fundamental condition in the universe and whether traveling in time is theoretically feasible. The idea of speeding around a black hole to advance in time is the theme of Brian Greene's wonderful book "Icarus at the Edge of Time" for children with the only difference that Icarus manages to travel faster forward than Hawking postulates (05/04/10).

  • The first planet has been detected which may support life under similar conditions as Earth. According to this estimate, a visit may not be entirely out of reach (09/30/10).
  • The possibilities of life different from ours seem boundless. Listen to today's report by Rebecca Davis and Christopher Joyce on National Public Radio's News with the title "The Deep-Sea Find that Changed Biology" on the discovery of lifeforms that thrive without oxygen in total darkness near deep sea vents (12/05/2011).
  • If you wish to join the Kepler team's search for exoplanets, you may visit (12/24/2011).

Sunday, December 9, 2007

About People with Visual Disability and the Usefulness of Braille

I had the privilege to meet people with severe visual disability in a study I conducted to examine the brain regions involved in Braille reading by touch. I am interested in brain plasticity. That is, I am studying the brains ability to reorganize after a change in input from the sensory periphery, e.g. the loss of eye sight. With positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain regions can be visualized that are activated during the exposure to sensory stimuli or the execution of tasks. Recent studies report that regions in the occipital lobes of the cerebral cortex that are known to process visual information in sighted people become activated in people with severe visual disability reading Braille with their fingertips. My colleagues and I at Vanderbilt University embarked on a study with Braille readers to examine specifically the role that the loss of vision may play in the recruitment of “visual” cerebral cortex for the processing of touch information. The movie shows typical cortical activation in a Braille reader with visual disability. At the beginning and the end of the rotation, the brain regions processing touch are at the top and the activated areas in "visual" cortex are at the bottom.

We could not determine in what cortical area the loss of vision was necessary for the recruitment. We could not find sighted readers who read Braille with their fingertips as proficient as people with severe visual disability. Hence, we could not exclude that visual cortex was recruited merely in the process of learning to read Braille, regardless of the presence or the absence of input from the eyes.

However, intriguingly we identified a number of cortical regions known to be involved in the processing of language. Careful analyses of the cerebral activation may help shed a light on the fashion in which occipital cortex processes information detached from a specific sensory modality, providing deeper insight into the workings of the human mind. Ford Ebner and I recently described the findings of our study comprehensively in a chapter of a book entitled "Blindness and Brain Plasticity in Navigation and Object Perception."

The study was a great learning experience for me. I had not met people with disabilities personally before.
  • I was very impressed with the ease with which most coped with the challenges of daily life, e.g. crossing a street. Next time when you stand at the lights of a busy intersection, close your eyes and decide when to go. You will understand immediately what I am saying.
  • I met many professionals with college degrees raising families. I asked one youngster whose parents are both blind, how they could possibly manage to keep track of him and his siblings. I have trouble with mine and I can see. He answered flatly: “It has never been a problem. My parents always know where we are and what we are up to.”
  • People with disabilities possess great wisdom of life. I once walked down the sidewalk with a participant, returning from a study. We were joking around fueled by the elation that we had a good session. The scanner had worked and nothing else had failed that day. A young man came up. He looked sullen. He called out: “Excuse me! May I ask a question?” “Yes,” my friend replied. “I see you walking down the street a blind man. Yet, you seem happy and content. I can see. But I am depressed. I have got to take pills to get me through the day. There is no happiness in my life. Would you trade with me?” My friend answered: “Of course, I would rather see. But I learned to live without. Take a day at a time and make the best of it.”
  • I was impressed with the physical abilities of people with visual disability. Many actively pursue sports. There are skiing programs in Colorado like Foresight that take people with visual disability to the slopes on weekends. Small groups are assigned to sighted guides whom they follow down the trails. I am a passionate skier. When I heard of the program, I imagined something quaint. Not at all! I happened to meet a group once on a black diamond tackling the moguls at awesome clip. I still cannot fathom, how you acquire this level of skill. My performance drops considerably in the fog. I was so impressed!

Finally, I learned about the meaning of Braille. A stencil with Braille cells is as essential as a notebook. The software that translates text to voice is improving at rapid rate. All major operating systems offer assistive technologies these days. Doubt is cast on the necessity of Braille in the future. However, many professionals prefer to use electronic Braille displays to be able to read the output from their computer most expediently and efficiently. Unfortunately, the gadgets are expensive compared with the voice programs, and not every employer is willing to make the investment.

Another problem is printing or, more correctly put, embossing. When I carried out my study, we attempted to emboss consent forms in Braille. It was a very cumbersome process. The software we had was rudimentary at best. The printer was highly mechanical and slow. The Braille dots were embossed in thick paper with metal pins. The noise reminded me of a machine gun and was quite unnerving. The gadget was huge, unwieldy and too expensive for personal use. I do not blame the engineers. They came up with a solution that is solid and works. However, in our day and age there must be faster, quieter and more affordable ways to emboss Braille.

I can only encourage development. Apart from the fascinating question how our brain processes Braille, Braille is here to stay for practical reasons. Who wants to depend on a computer during a black out?

  • Driving a Prius people with visual disability may have great difficulty in hearing you coming. Please be considerate (09/27/08)!
  • New touch screen technology promises useful assistive technologies for smart phones. In his article published on The New York Times site on Jan. 4, 2009, Miguel Helft describes the work of T.V. Raman on applications tailored for people with severe visual disability using google's Android smart phone operating system.

Friday, December 7, 2007

About the World Wide Web and Access for Everybody

The steam engine and iron rails transformed our lives profoundly 200 years ago. The USA would be a very different place today without the railroad. I believe that the personal computer and the internet will transform our lives in even a more comprehensive fashion than the railroad. Unprecedented in our history, these tools enable us to exchange information globally and interact with each other almost instantly. In open source computing, people work together who live in Minsk, Mumbai, Shanghai and San Francisco, as if they sat across the street from each other. The resulting synergism is unprecedented in our history. On this post's day, SOURCEFORGE.NET hosts 164,138 projects and has 1,744,123 registered users.

It is essential for our future that everyone has access to the internet. Particularly, people in developing countries must not be left behind, if we wish to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor nations. That is why I encourage everybody to participate in the One Laptop per Child initiative.

Nicholas Negroponte, Professor at M.I.T., launched this initiative in 2002 with the idea to create a laptop computer affordable to people with little means. This computer was conceived to cost about $100.- and work anywhere, providing access to knowledge about our world to youngsters even in the remotest areas. The product ended up costing twice as much as initially hoped.

However, there is a way to ease the financial burden. When you participate in this initiative until Dec. 31, you purchase for a bit more than $400.- one computer for yourself and another for a kid somewhere out there who has hardly ever seen a sleek gadget like this before. I bought one for my ten year-old son. Imagine two sets of eyes beaming with curiosity and excitement, one set here and a second set somewhere else, when the kids unpack this wonder machine! Join in!

  • On Nov. 17, 2008, XO laptops can be purchased here (Oct. 18, 2008).
  • Amazon is sold out for now (Jan. 12, 2009).
  • Brian Stelter reported today in his The New York Times article entitled "Can CNN, the Go-to Site, Get You to Stay?" that garners on average 1.7 billion page views per month. The web is the future (01/17/09)!
  • I could not emphasize the relevance of free global exchange of ideas better than Dr. Goodall in this 2002 presentation (07/07/10):

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sturmey-Archer to the Rescue

The problem
My daughter and I used to go to work together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The university has got a pretty campus. The trouble was that we both needed to go to places at both ends that were hard to access at rush hour. A huge hospital, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is nearby and long lines of cars move slowly around every block. Since we do not live very far, we opted for a bike with a back seat for a co-pilot. I am not really a pro biker by any stretch. So we bought a cheap low-riding cruiser and a seat from our local Wal*Mart. Low-riding seemed to be important to keep the center of gravity close to the ground. We had the shortest commute ever and a great time on the way, until it rained ... Boy those caliper breaks don't do very much when they are wet. Though I clamped down on the breaks with all my strength, we slid down the hill almost into traffic and turned away just so before we hit the busy road big time. We both got away with a pretty good fright.

The solution
What's the solution, here? Take the car, whenever there is a droplet in sight? Nope! I thought, it is best to ask people for advice who understand rain: the BRITS. If somebody has got experience with cycling safely drenched, it is got to be the British. They must know a solution to the problem. And certainly, they do! It is the drum break! The break pads are protected from the rain in the sealed hub.

Searching with Google on the net I found Sturmey Archer. Their drum break hubs looked very functional and cool. I found an e-mail order bike shop in the U.S. that carries them (Alfred E Bike) and ordered the X-FD for a front wheel.

The package arrived. The next problem dawned on me right away, when I held the shiny hub in my hand: How do we put this in?
Answer: You have to re-lace the spokes of your wheel. Again, I googled for answers and got them from Sheldon Brown at Harris Cyclery. Though the project seemed fascinating, I decided quickly, it was not going to be me who was going to do this. I did not have the tools, and it seemed to take quite some experience to do it right. I resorted to our local bike store, Cumberland Transit. They did a wonderful job for about $70.-, spokes included. The hub was about $50.-. I managed to install the wheel and connect the actuator to the handle myself. That was not too difficult for someone with average skill.

The new front wheel with the XF-D drum brake hub.
The picture shows the finished product in use. We had a solution for $120.-, pedaled happily away for another two years rain or shine and took breaks at Harris-Teeter to have Orangina which tastes twice as good from pot-bellied bottles, until my co-pilot grew tall, stepped outside on one chilly winter morning and announced: “It is too cold, Dad. Let's take the car!” Luckily, we had to report to different places then and the traffic was not too bad.

P.S: You may notice, we also installed a Python fork to go with the drum break. We found it on It sure makes for a smoother, be it more wobbly ride. If you choose to go down that road, too, make sure that the stem of the fork fits the neck of your frame before you order.

  • Today, I discovered the coolest advertising campaign ever, excelling in simplicity and cleverness. Those of legal beer-drinking age may check out the latest Fat Tire sales effort (05/24/10):

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

About Taking Risks

The Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, is an astounding institution of higher learning. Literally, the name translates into English as “Federal Technical High School”. "Federal", because the Swiss federal government supports the institution. "Confederal" would be more appropriate, because the Swiss define their nation as the Confederation of the Swiss. The acronym on their trunk stickers reads CH for confederatio helvetiae, which means Confederation of the Swiss in Latin. Latin was the language of the learned when the Swiss founded their Confederation more than 700 years ago with an oath sworn to help each other. “Eidgenossenschaft”, the German term for the Confederation, means comradeship by oath. The ETH is not a High School. That would be a “Gymnasium” in the Teutonic Languages. It is an engineering school. I use statistical analyses frequently. The ETH helps to develop R, which is one of the most powerful and versatile statistics packages available in open source computing.

In the year 2000, the ETH launched a research initiative in risk assessment. When I heard of this idea, I thought: ”Typically Swiss! They always worry about insurance.” When I checked, most projects aimed at assessing risks in civil engineering and catastrophic damage. But, I bet the principles guiding the software find ready application in the assessment of other types of risk. Just a few weeks ago CEO Charles Prince resigned, because his bank had incurred tantamount losses while dabbling in high-risk investments in sub-prime lending (Dan Wilchins and Jonathan Stempel's post on Reuters dated Nov. 2, 2007, with the title "Citigroup CEO Prince to resign: reports"). What did he blame? Faulty software that was making bad predictions on risk! In his testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,  Mar. 7, 2008, he blames the models the industry was using. Perhaps, he should have consulted with the ETH, before he decided to go down that road.


  • In hindsight, the bank managers heavily relied on these tools in their decisions. However, even at UBS they did not comprehend them well enough to interpret the data correctly (08/01/2008).
  • At yesterday's congressional hearing, Citigroup's former CEO Charles Prince apologized to Americans hurt by the financial crisis that Citigroup helped precipitate in no small part. He believes that risk reporting within the institution at the time was not at fault and followed good practices. Rather, faulty risk assessment caused the bank's enormous losses. He had come to this conclusion already three years ago (see above). However, now responsibility is shifted to the originators of the bad loans. Prince seems to believe that Citigroup was misled by the original lenders' overoptimistic judgment of the customers' ability to service subprime mortgages. As a result, the risk attached to the securitized bundles containing these loans was understimated and the price at which they were sold to investors was overrated. Listen closely (04/09/10)!
  • Contrary to the former CEOs of Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and Washington Mutual, some in the industry understood the risk attached to subprime lending extremely well.

    On Apr. 22, 2010, Carrick Mollenkamp, Mark Whitehouse and Anton Troianovski published an informative chronicle in The Wall Street Journal entitled "The Busted Homes Behind a Big Bet" of the events surrounding a collateralized debt obligation, or CDO for short, named Abacus that achieved notoriety lately as an example for the catastrophic failure of securitized mortgage bundles that precipitated this country's greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression while providing its creators with extraordinary returns.

    In 2007, Paulson & Co., a hedge-fund management company, helped create Abacus 2007-AC1 for institutional investors in collaboration with Goldman Sachs and the portfolio selection-agent ACA Management, LLC. Within the next six months, Abacus would lose 83 percent of its value.

    Paulson & Co. had painstakingly analyzed the mortgages bundled in Abacus and correctly predicted that great losses were inevitable and soon to come. A senior employee of the firm, Paolo Pellegrini, was deeply involved in structuring Abacus. According the Wall Street Journal article, " Mr. Pellegrini and a colleague had purchased an enormous database capable of tracking the characteristics of more than six million mortgages in various parts of the country. They spent long hours scouring it all, according to people familiar with the matter." Paulson and Co. took out insurance against the CDO's demise, cashing out a billion dollars at its end.

    Apparently, correct models for risk assessment and data bases with the necessary information were available to those who wished to come to the right conclusions (04/25/10).
  • This Reuters video report by Bobbi Rebell with the title "Camping out for a change" published today portrays a new political movement that attempts to harness people's feared risk of being set adrift by those with a seemingly insatiable appetite for it. Within the past decade, risk assessment has become the overarching theme of our time (10/10/2011).
    (Thumbnail photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)


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Broken Cups in Your OS X Cupboard

I work a lot with pictures professionally and have been using Apple computers for most of my career, except my Master's Thesis which I wrote on a DEC PDP 11. I was only a user. However, it always struck me with trepidation that I did not understand a thing of what was going on under the hood. I was eventually roped into computing, when the Apple operating system turned to UNIX around the year 2000. With the introduction of OS X, Apple had opened itself to Open Source computing which opened a new universe to me. Seven years later, I spent way more time with compiling packages than I ought to, and way more often than I liked, I ended up in a real fix. Regardless, the euphoria of empowerment outweighed the disappointment by far.

Today I report on one example of the kinds of adventure one may encounter on this road. Several months ago, I happened on the website of cups printing. Cups is the printing routine used in OS X. I found a pre-compiled binary of a more recent version than I had ready for installation. Since I wanted to be at the cutting edge, I downloaded the offering and installed it without reading the fine print. The result was that I could not print anymore. The fine print said that one had to re-install the operating system, if the update did not work. Oh!

I was not prepared to do that. So I compiled the most recent 1.4.x version for developers from source myself and installed it. After that, I could not even get passed the login window. I had a series of sweaty moments since then. I did not believe the functions that depend on cups! Much of OS X appears to depend on the cups library in one way or another. How can this be in the age decentralization? I managed to fix the problem by re-installing n older version in the single user mode.

Months later, I re-visited the cups website. The pre-compiled packages were gone, and it was recommended to try one the versions 1.3.x. After a number of tries, one of them worked and I offer the result on my project (Software for Small Budget Science). The package is compiled with Tiger on Intel. It has worked well for me. Let my adventure be a warning.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Leonardo's View

I just was reminded of the great Leonardo da Vinci the other day. A book entitled “La Musica Celata” has just been published in which the author, Giovanni Maria Pala, lays out evidence that a musical theme is embedded in Leonardo's painting of the Last Supper. That Leonardo was truly one of a kind! His drawings and paintings reflect such a keen sense of actuality and maybe more. I am a neuro-anatomist by training. I always admired realistic drawings of the human body. In my mind, Leonardo was the first modern anatomist.

I once could visit a traveling exhibit of his drawings and notes on human anatomy at the Philadelphia College of Physicians. Beside the very impressively detailed renderings of muscles and bones, drawings on the brain caught my eye. On one parchment (Fig. 5), a schema on how the brain may work was center stage. The ventricles, that is the fluid-filled cavities, were of utmost importance. In Leonardo's time, it was commonly accepted that our thoughts, our spirit, would travel with the juice in the ventricles. The nerve cells were discovered only centuries later. However, the Maestro was not going to be fooled. If you train your eye on the lower left corner of the parchment, you discover that what looks like a smudge is the faint impression of a more detailed drawing of brain structure. As if Leonardo tried to draw something as he saw it and then erased it. The other parchment (Fig. 6) shows his method of reproducing the shape of the ventricles by filling them with wax in the bovine brain. On this parchment, again the ventricles take center stage, Yet, on the right side there is another faint drawing. This time, the shape is distinct. You see a very realistic reproduction of the cerebral cortex with its sulci and gyri. Though it may seem human, it is most likely the cortex cerebri of a cow. Yes, also ruminants have a cortex with numerous convolutions. That must have caught the Maestro's eye. I can imagine that he mumbled to himself: ”Only shows the limits of inductive thinking. This proves that cortical convolutions are no key to intellect!” And all the world's cows must have agreed with a resounding:” Moo!”

If you like to see more of Leonardo's notes on human anatomy, check in a book like Leonardo Da Vinci on the Human Body. In his studies, Leonardo was constantly struggling with the unreal views of the day and with the actuality that he saw and could not help, but draw. He must have erased his impression of reality many times, because of his fear of the authorities. Dissecting bodies was forbidden. He wrote his notes on the parchments in mirror image to conceal his thoughts from the average person who may have betrayed him. But, then he could not efface his convictions entirely. In the end, Leonardo's perceptions of the brain were correct, and he stands tall today. What can we learn from this?

Trust your own eyes more than anything, particularly when the views of the day get in the way.

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Friday, November 30, 2007


I have been involved in brain research for about 30 years. That sounds like a long time. But the years went real fast. In science you never reach the finish line. One project leads to the next. Before you even had the chance to wrap up the present work, the new work already has begun.

On one hand this is sad, because you never walk away with the satisfaction that you completed something. It always remains work in progress until you run out of time. On the other hand, it never gets boring. Idleness becomes an alien feeling. Insatiable curiosity is definitely a prerequisite for this profession. Perhaps being a scientist is a state of mind. You do not find this job. You get stuck with it. And after a while your mind becomes so accustomed to the analytical process that you cannot stop it from examining the happenings around you, constantly asking why things are the way they are, do they have to be that way, and can't they be another way.

Because my world appears overcrowded with stuff to ponder, I thought perhaps writing about what grabs my attention on a regular basis would help to keep this fractured mind in focus. Some experiences may be useful to others. I do not mind sharing my insights. Hence, with that said, Peter's Blog is born.